Most leaders get them. Every so often, someone will send an unwarranted venomous note, letter, or email. If you’ve ever received one, then you know they rarely come from someone close. Most of the time, they come from people you hardly know. In the church, these malicious messages are usually about irrelevant specifics, not the essentials of discipleship or the direction of a leader’s vision. Most annoyingly, they often come as a surprise from someone who has never expressed any previous disagreements in person.
Regardless of how off base such a letter may be, it still represents the perspective of a person in the church family. So what do you do? Obviously, leaders do not lead by people-pleasing. And anonymous letters make for good practice at trash can basketball. However, nastygrams—as I like to call them—from members willing to put their names on them deserve a response. Here are four options.
1. Ignore the message. Sometimes people really are senseless—giving them an audience only worsens the problem. Some notes do not deserve a response. However, in many cases, ignoring people is bad leadership. Pretending problems don’t exist is foolish.
2. Pout over the message. People-pleasers (most of us leaders) hate to get these types of notes. It brings us down. It consumes our thoughts. We mope. We sulk about as if no one else appreciates us. Pouting gets you nowhere. Pouting can cause your supporters to think less of you.
3. Fight back against the message. This is the worst option—using your leadership position to trade insults. The temptation is great to fire back a pithy, rancorous reply. But such banter does not honor God. Leaders in the church are called to be above reproach, not below the belt.
4. Use the message as an opportunity for gracious leadership. Nastygrams can be opportunities to reach out to people and enlighten them to the greater purpose of your vision. Put their concern in the grander perspective of where you are headed as a leader. Perhaps they have bad information about you. Perhaps their bitter message is the result of gossip from others. Buried in the insult, perhaps they have a point. You might have the opportunity to build a bridge to an entire group of people. You might gain a stronger ally after graciously reaching out. In every case, you have the opportunity to show the love of Christ.
With all nastygrams, it’s important not to focus on them. Don’t let them consume you. And I hope your files are like mine. I’ve received piles (literally) of encouraging notes and letters from people of all generations at my church. The nastygram is a rarity. When it comes, I try to use it as an opportunity. It’s tough—and I’ve not always responded appropriately—but I’ve never regretted responding by speaking the truth in love.
Posted on September 1, 2021
As President of Church Answers, Sam Rainer wears many hats. From podcast co-host to full-time Pastor at West Bradenton Baptist Church, Sam’s heart for ministry and revitalization are evident in all he does.
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Glad to have you at Church Answers, Andrew.
If it’s anonymous, I toss it in the garbage. If it’s unfairly harsh or hateful, I might reply or I might not. Once again, I refer my ministerial colleagues to Kenneth Haugk’s book, “Antagonists in the Church”. He gives some good guidelines how to tell the difference between an antagonist and a genuinely disgruntled church member, and he also gives some helpful instructions on how to handle antagonists. If the hate message is from an antagonist, a lengthy reply will only encourage him / her to cause more trouble.
P.S. No, I’m not Kenneth Haugk. We just happen to have the same first name. 😉
What about the “snipers” who spread lies about the pastor via social media. No way to fight back.
It is easy for an angry person to believe and spread a vicious lie.
A well-known Baptist leader once told me, “People will climb a tree backwards to believe a lie when they could believe the truth at ground level.”
A woman who was a nominal member of a church told in a beauty shop, “When Pastor XXX left the church, he stole half the money they had.” It happened that a regular member of the church heard that comment and reported it to the pastor but she did not confront the lady who said it. The pastor had no defense. All who heard it then could conclude the pastor was a thief.
Truth is, I have never known a Baptist pastor who had access to any of the church’s money. I know of no Baptist pastor who was ever on the “counting committee” that met on Monday morning, took the previous Sunday’s offerings out of the safe at the church, counted it with the committee and the treasurer, and went to the bank with the two people on the committee who deposited the church’s offerings. I was never, and no pastor I have known or heard of were ever a part of any access to the church’s money.
Most Baptists would know that. But, when a lie like “the pastor stole half the church’s money when he left” is told in public, how is one to know it isn’t true. When it is told again, it gets bigger.
The only church money any pastor I have ever hear of had access to was his tithe. It belonged to God through the church. Once put in an envelope and put it in the offering plate or given to the church treasurer, it is never seen again by the pastor.
It is amazing how lies get started. “I think I heard someone say that. . .” is one way a liar often spreads gossip.
If the person spreading the lie gets tracked down, all he/she has to say is, “Well, I just thought I heard someone say it. . .maybe I was mistaken.” But, the damage from the lies is already done.
A life can be ruined and ministry destroyed by “snipers” on social media who can use pseudonyms, leaving no way to track them down or liars who “think they heard someone say. . .”
I think the writer of the message needs to take some responsibility for their actions. The title of this article refers to “hate messages.” A “hate message” has nothing to do with speaking the truth in love. Is “hate” ever acceptable in the life of a Christian? Or is it OK to express “hate” as long as it’s not to someone’s face? I’ve received some awful letters and emails from congregational members during the past two years. I never felt so hated in my entire life.. Thankfully, I’m no longer pastoring this church, but I probably will never pastor a church again because of the emotional stress that resulted from the “hate messages.” Church members need to know just how damaging their “hate messages” can be, not just to the recipient of the message but also to the entire church. This can divide and destroy churches.
Adages from my growing up days which are apropos in most contexts, especially when thinking about criticism. (1) Praise in public, criticize in private. (2) The corollary – don’t air dirty laundry in public, position fights are best face-to-face exchanges. (3) Sometimes the best response is “noted” or “thank you for your feedback.” (4) The passive-aggressive response is “I’ll give it the attention it deserves.” (5) There is truth in, “Don’t wrestle with a pig, you both get dirty and the pig enjoys itself.” (6) And probably most important, A response is appropriate, even if the response is “I don’t know how to respond to your comments.”
Criticism should be a moment of self-reflection. A critic obviously sees a flaw in your performance, either personal or professional, and in their “world” perception is reality. Once there has been time to digest the criticism, it can be helpful to see how the critic might have perceived what they observed, or if their perception is a form of projection.
Along the lines of Michael Hogue’s comment, dealing with criticism is one of the principal reasons all pastors and church leaders should have a Spiritual Director, a person who can help find God in the events of life. My Spiritual Director helps me find the Holy in the mess of community life and to not take things too personally.
I didn’t see the best course of action given in any of the options listed above. I know the fourth response may be the best one but as leaders we often lead by past experience and as David shows us, in 2 Samuel 5:17-21 and then again in verses 22-25 the same issue arises but David goes to God both times and God gives him a different approach the second time. I believe that we should follow Hezekiah’s example in 2 Kings 19:14, go into a private place and spread the letter out before the Lord prior to taking any course of action. Of course we all know that prayer should be first but in our busy schedules we often need a gentle reminder to pray first and act after seeking God’s leading.
I used to get negative comments on my blog a few years back. If the poster had provided an email address I replied in private rather than give a forum unless the comment was a valid response to the article.
I never – or hardly ever anyway – reply immediately. I’ve got a temper God is helping me work on. 36 years and counting now. It’s better than it used to be, but online it’s not easy for me under the relative anonymity of the internet.